In a recent interview with Human Events, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour talks about the rise of Southern Republicans, arguing that it had to do with generational and economic transformations. Liberal bloggers Steve Benen and Steve Kornacki reject this argument in separate posts, arguing instead that the South’s move to Republicanism was tied up wholly in racial politics.

Both Benen and Kornacki take one truthful element of the Southern realignment, expand it so that it explains the whole thing, then relentlessly hammer the same point for hundreds of subsequent words. Their work amounts to an oversimplified account of the partisan realignment of the South.

There is no doubt that race matters in the South. Nor is there any doubt that the Democratic Party’s shift on the issue was a defining moment in the ongoing post-Roosevelt realignment, and that the GOP ultimately became the beneficiary of this shift. Let me stipulate all this clearly and unequivocally at the outset, with the addendum that race matters a great deal in the North, too. Check out, for instance, the pattern of racialized voting in New York City’s 2009 mayoral election, drawn by Sean Trende.

My point here is that Benen and Kornacki leave too much of the story on the cutting room floor.

For starters, the rift between Northern and Southern factions within the Democratic party did not suddenly emerge at the 1948 convention or with the 1960s civil rights battle, as their pieces suggest. It could be seen as early as 1933. A clique of Southern senators - Carter Glass and Harry Byrd of Virginia, Josiah Bailey of North Carolina, and Thomas Gore of Oklahoma - opposed many key items of the early New Deal. Southern resistance to FDR's reform agenda stiffened after his reelection in 1936. They balked at his Supreme Court packing proposal, but there was more to it than that. Thanks to the Wagner Act and the efforts of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, labor had won huge gains in Northern industry; many from that region were worried that Yankee capital would migrate from the high-wage North to the low-wage South. Thus, the Fair Labor Standards Act was born, designed to phase in minimum wage and maximum hours that would principally affect Southern industry. Southern Democrats managed to table it temporarily in the House. Even so, it eventually passed with virtually uniform support among Northern Democrats, but a split in the Southern Democratic caucus. FDR responded in 1938 by trying to purge anti-New Dealers via party primaries. He concentrated mostly on Southern Democrats, and his attempts mostly failed.

Put simply, Roosevelt’s victory in 1936 signaled the arrival of organized labor as a political force in the North, and especially in the Democratic party. The South, meanwhile, had resisted unionization. By 1940, about 20 percent of all workers nationwide were unionized, but only 11 percent of Southern workers were. This led to an intra-party economic cleavage centered around issues of labor and wages that has since become a major element of the Republican-Democratic divide of the 21st century. It has to do with race – just as many things in the South do – but race was not the central point of this particular conflict.

Another factor in the drift of the Southern Democrats away from the Northern Democrats and to the GOP has to do with the great social and economic changes in the South since World War II. The South has grown by leaps and bounds economically. The Republican Party has always been the party of business development. So is it a huge shock that the South, as it has gone from an agricultural region to a high tech and industrial leader, would become partial to the Grand Old Party?

It’s putting it mildly to say that the South is not the same place in 2010 as it was in 1910. The agrarian poverty under which the region labored for so long finally began to ease after World War II, and in its place arose a modern economy that was built around manufacturing, defense, high tech, oil and natural gas, and of course tourism. This carried with it major social changes like Northern immigration, a rising middle class, a more educated populace. The latter point is particularly noteworthy. For years, the South lagged far behind in education, fearful that an educated public would abandon the low-wage South for the high-wage North. But today, thousands of Northerners travel to the South to attend one of the regions many superlative schools - the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, the University of North Carolina, Duke University, Emory University, and more. A hundred years ago, this was unthinkable.

All of this contributed to the success of the GOP. The following is from Earl and Merle Black’s Rise of the Southern Republicans:

The rise of a middle and upper-middle class has produced millions of voters with substantial incomes subject to substantial federal and state taxation. Many of these upwardly mobile individuals, wanting to keep the lion’s share of their earnings, view the Republicans as far more sympathetic than the Democrats to their economic interests and aspirations.

This is essentially the point that Haley Barbour makes in the interview that apparently offended Kornacki and Benen.

Yet where were the first post-war congressional districts to tip Republican in Dixie? In the Black Belt counties with the most henious racial oppression? No. The GOP won a special election in 1950 in TX-18 (Amarillo). Then in 1954, the party won TX-5 (Dallas) and FL-1 (Tampa). Newt Gingrich’s congressional district was in suburban Atlanta. Dick Armey’s was in Dallas. George W. Bush was from Texas by way of Connecticut.

Religion has also been an important factor. The Democratic party fought internal religious battles for decades prior to the Great Depression. These pitted Southern, rural Protestants against Northern, urban Catholics. It’s a big reason why it took the party 103 ballots to pick a nominee in 1924 and why Herbert Hoover won 48 percent of the Southern vote against Catholic Al Smith in 1928. Meanwhile, the GOP had long been the domain of Northern Protestants (with the general exception of the German Lutherans). So is it any surprise that when a two-party system came to the South, Southern Protestants would find common cause with their Northern counterparts, especially after a hot button cultural issue like abortion made religious beliefs politically salient once again?

These slow moving factors help explain the gradual shift toward the Republican Party. By itself, the Civil Rights turmoil cannot account fully for the political changes. For while the Deep South voted for Goldwater in 1964, the Democrats still carried a whopping 90 of 106 congressional districts in Dixie in 1964. In fact, the big breakthrough for the GOP in the House did not come until 1994. Prior to that, the Democrats could count on better than 3/5ths of the Southern congressional districts. Even today, the Democratic party splits Southern districts, winning a fair share of majority white districts in the process. That level of competition is not consistent with the Benen/Kornacki argument that white Southern antipathy toward blacks motivates them to vote Republican. If it were, we would see a new Solid South, a solidly Republican South. We don’t see that.

Benen and Kornacki are no doubt on to something. The racial politics of the 1960s are still with us, even though they now lurk in the background. But their stories are overly simple, and they cast Southerners and Republicans in an unfairly negative light.

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